The other day we noted some of the mainstream writers who had been shortlisted for (or had even won) major science fiction awards. But the news that Naomi Alderman has won the Baileys Women’s Prize for The Power was a reminder that the traffic isn’t all one way.
Admittedly, there are fewer sf novels being shortlisted for mainstream awards, and some of the sf authors are shortlisted for such awards for non-sf novels. For instance, J.G. Ballard was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, while M. John Harrison won the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature with his own semi-autobiographical novel about rock climbing, Climbers. Similarly, writers who are primarily known as mainstream authors sometimes get shortlisted for a rare venture into genre, such as Martin Amis for Time’s Arrow and Kazuo Ishiguro for Never Let Me Go, both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Nevertheless, there are instances of science fiction authors being shortlisted for (or even winning) major mainstream awards, and these are some of them.
Atwood is something of a liminal figure on this list, as she was on the companion list of mainstream writers who were shortlisted for sf awards. When The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1986, she was known as a mainstream novelist, and the satire of this novel was presumably unexceptional within mainstream circles. And The Blind Assassin, which won the Booker Prize in 2000, may have interweaved an eccentric family history with chapters of a story about a blind killer, but it would have been easy to assume that the science fictional elements of the novel were subordinate to the mainstream elements. But when she was shortlisted again for the Booker with Oryx and Crake, the first part of what became her Maddaddam trilogy, she had unequivocally moved into science fiction territory.
Alasdair Gray’s first novel, the extraordinary Lanark, has been claimed as both science fiction and as a masterpiece of postmodern literature. But in novel after novel following that stunning debut he incorporated elements of the fantastic, so that by the time Poor Things won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1992, he was clearly seen as an sf writer. And you could hardly avoid such a description when it came to Poor Things because that was a reinvention of the Frankenstein story, with elements of Jekyll and Hyde thrown in for good measure. The book purports to be recently discovered documents which relate the story of Bella Baxter and her husband, a 19th century public health officer. But the documents strongly hint that Bella was created by another doctor, though this is a version of her story that Bella herself strongly refutes.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin is now so widely recognised as one of the most significant figures in contemporary American literature that it is hardly surprising that her work has been shortlisted for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The surprise may be, in fact, that she has never won either. She was first shortlisted for the National Book Award in 1977 for Orsinian Tales, the collection of short stories linked to the fictional Central European country that featured in Malafrena. She was shortlisted again in 1985 for Always Coming Home, her monumental collection of stories, fables, poems and even music relating to the Kesh, peoples of the Pacific Northwest in a peaceful far future. Finally, she was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1997 for another collection of short stories, Unlocking the Air, though these tales tended to bring elements of the fantastic into the everyday.
Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, was a major mainstream writer whose work was concerned with issues of feminism and social justice, though she had flirted with genre elements several times in novels like The Four-Gated City, Briefing for a Descent into Hell and Memoirs of a Survivor. But in 1979 she began to produce an overtly science fictional series (though she called it “space fiction”) under the overall title Canopus in Argos: Archives. It was the third of these, The Sirian Experiments, that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981, which means it was probably the most uncompromisingly science fictional work ever to get the nod from the Booker judges.
As with Ursula Le Guin, Kelly Link has now won a reputation far outside genre fiction. So, although her short stories almost invariably involve overt science fiction, fantasy or horror, she is, perhaps, seen as a sort of honorary mainstream writer. So the fact that her most recent collection, Get In Trouble, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 should probably come as no great surprise. Anyone familiar with her work will find stories every bit as artfully constructed, every bit as sly in their slow introduction of the outre, the strange, the bizarre, as we have become used to. And the twist in the tail, the consequences of the ghost hunt, the truth about the never-seen visitors to the old cottage in North Carolina, is as shocking and as satisfying as anything she has written before.
In the early years of his career, Moorcock churned out very conventional genre stories even as he was editing New Worlds. But in time he began to build up a very distinctive aesthetic in which recurring characters played out mythic roles against a surreal and vivid version of the modern world. This was a particular feature of his stories of Jerry Cornelius, a figure who seemed to embody all the energy and the contradictions of the counter-culture. At it was the fourth of the Jerry Cornelius novels, The Condition of Muzak, that won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1977, an unexpected recognition that only such a playfully perverse novel truly reflected the modern condition.
Priest’s The Prestige achieved a very rare double in 1995: it became one of the very few novels to have won both a major mainstream literary award and a major genre award. It won the World Fantasy Award, even though it is pure science fiction and a novel about two magicians contains no actual magic; and it was the first science fiction novel ever to win the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It is the story of two rival stage magicians around the turn of the 20th century whose rivalry becomes ever more deadly as they each seek to perfect a trick in which one person is instantly transported from one place to another. But, in a twist that evokes the story of Frankenstein, the consequences of what they attempt continues to be felt down to the present day.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Around the time that he produced his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut began to distance himself from science fiction. But up to that point his work had all undoubtedly been science fiction, and since this novel involved time travel and aliens it would have been hard to see it as anything other than another sf novel. But the fact that it was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 1970 is probably recognition of the fact that it was so much more than another science fiction novel. It recounts Vonnegut’s own experiences as a prisoner of war during the Second World War, in particular during the Dresden firestorm. The trauma so affects Vonnegut’s alter ego, Billy Pilgrim, that he is cut loose from time, experiencing the events of his life in a disordered and incoherent fashion, until he is captured by aliens from Tralfamadore who display him in a zoo on their own planet.
We end this list as we began it , with a liminal figure. Is Colson Whitehead a mainstream writer who writes science fiction, or a science fiction writer who writes mainstream. Or does the distinction matter? All we can say is that The Underground Railroad, the story of an escaped slave in antebellum America who is transported, by a literal underground railroad, to experience surreal representations of the black experience in post-war America, has already won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award this year, and is also shortlisted for a couple of science fiction awards; so Whitehead could replicate the double achieved by Christopher Priest.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.